When You Don't Need a "Diet"

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Losing added holiday pounds is as simple as eliminating 100 calories per day.

By Gina Shaw
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Maybe you put it all on in the last couple of weeks -- an extra helping of mashed potatoes here, a slice of pecan pie there, two or three holiday parties' worth of drinks and noshes, and you find yourself 5 pounds heavier on Jan. 2 than you were on Dec. 2. Or maybe you've been carrying an extra 5 or 10 pounds all year long, and you've made that classic New Year's resolution: It's time to take the weight off.

You don't need The Zone delivering meals to your door, a lifetime membership to Bally's, or a Bowflex in your living room, says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center, and associate director of the UPMC Nutrition Center. All you need is a little strategy -- and some patience.

"By cutting out 100 calories a day, you can lose about a pound a month, and by summertime you'll have all that weight off," says Fernstrom (remember, that's cutting 100 calories a day from your usual caloric intake, not the overstuffed holiday version). "That's by doing almost nothing. It's really not that hard."

Really? OK, so where do you find those calories, and how do you trim them? Fernstrom has a few tips:

  • Write down what you eat. "It sounds lame," she confesses, "but it works. It helps to get you structured." You don't have to do it for months on end, but if you note down every bite that goes into your mouth for a week, you'll see where your weaknesses are and where you can "cut the fat."
  • Eat breakfast. Yes, you're supposed to be cutting calories, not adding them. But if you try to starve yourself in the morning so you can eat more later, you're likely to end up piling on more calories than you save. To keep breakfast slim, spread jam on your toast rather than butter, replace whole milk with skim milk, or replace fried eggs with poached ones.
  • Don't drink any calories. With the exception of skim milk, Fernstrom says, avoid drinking anything that adds to your caloric total. "Don't drink your fruit, eat it," she says. "That's much more filling and gives you the fiber you need."
  • Don't skimp on protein. "You'll be hungry later if you do," she says. "Protein is biologically satisfying." If you have a salad for lunch, toss in some tuna or grilled chicken to sustain you through the afternoon snack cravings (to save calories: make sure it's tuna packed in water, not oil; replace croutons with equally crunchy celery; and opt for low-cal dressing instead of bleu cheese).
  • Eat everything with chopsticks. They're not just for Chinese restaurants anymore -- chopsticks force you to slow down and eat small bites of food. You'll enjoy your food more and have time to notice when you're full (and if you are eating Chinese, ask for brown rice instead of white).
  • Soup is your friend. Clear soups such as tomato, chicken, and vegetable soups (not baked potato and cheese, please!) give you a sense of fullness without adding too many extra calories.
  • Stock up on craving-quenching snacks. Love sweets? Replace leftover pies with sugar-free Jell-O and sugar-free Popsicles, many of which have 60 calories or less (the Jell-O weighs in at a feather-light 10 calories). Or take a bag of frozen berries, microwave the berries, and put a little Splenda on top. If salty and crunchy is your downfall, drop the afternoon bag of potato chips for a minibag of Orville Redenbacher's SmartPop popcorn. At 110 calories, you save between 40 and 50 calories over a "serving" of most chips.

Boost Your Calorie Burn

While you're cutting out 100 calories a day, you can also boost the number of calories you burn -- and you don't need a gym to do it. The best investment you can make in increasing your exercise quotient, says Fernstrom, is a pedometer. You can buy a pedometer for under $10, and by wearing it for just a week, you'll have a much better idea of how active (or inactive) you are.

"We always overestimate our physical activity and underestimate our calorie intake," says Fernstrom. "If your pedometer shows that you're walking less than 10,000 steps a day, you're not moving enough." For the average person, walking 1 mile -- or about 2,500 steps -- burns an average 100 calories. This of course will depend on the individual, the terrain being walked, the speed at which the individual walks, etc.

"Of course, you can go to a gym and do it on a treadmill or elliptical runner, but you don't have to," says Fernstrom. "A lot of experts recommend that you get 45 minutes a day of sustained exercise, but that's often unrealistic. Just 30 minutes of accumulated activity is a big help." So don't stress -- incorporate a few minutes of activity here and a few minutes there:

  • Walk the mall. Before perusing those postholiday sales, take a couple of laps around the mall. And you know you're supposed to be parking in the farthest possible parking spot from the entrance, don't you?
  • Be inefficient. Don't gather up all the laundry before taking it downstairs (or upstairs); instead, make two trips, or three, or four. Apply the same principle to bringing in the groceries or loading up the car for a trip.
  • Take breaks at work. Every couple of hours, get up from your desk and walk around the block a couple of times, or if the weather's bad, hit the stairwell and do a couple of walks up and down as many flights as you can. (One year after moving out of a fifth-floor walk-up, I had gained five pounds and one size in jeans without noticing it. It adds up!).

Finally, remember: It's OK to cheat a little now and then. You've probably gotten accustomed to being self-indulgent during the holidays, and going from all goodies to strict regimentation is a recipe for quitting. "There are no bad foods, just bad portions," says Fernstrom. "Make plans to treat yourself on occasion and you'll be better able to stick to your plans. When you have an apple for dessert on Wednesday, promise yourself a slice of apple pie for dessert on Saturday. Learn to say, 'Not never -- just not now.'"

Published Jan. 3, 2005.

SOURCES: Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director, Weight Management Center, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh.

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